Saturday 31 May 2014

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert - literary scholar, European immigrant to America with an ever derisive view of his new country, and most famously, paedophile. He has an insatiable lust for “nymphets”, girls on the cusp of puberty, girls just like Dolores Haze (Lolita, as she will always be when under his caresses).

The lush writing of Humbert is a stark contrast to the caricatured academic writer of the prologue. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” our narrator and protagonist tells us, leaving us to wonder who his victim was. He contemplates murder and violence several times throughout the novel, and knowing that he does carry out the act from the very beginning leaves the reader with anxiety over who it will be.

In these first few paragraphs he also gives us some sense of the root of his lust for these young girls. His early failed attempts at intimacy seem to have frozen his sexual desires, leaving him unable to have satisfying relations with adults – a situation reminiscent of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. He is, however, willing to resign himself to sexual relations with Lolita’s mother in order to have more free access to her daughter. He sees it as a stroke of luck when she is killed and he is left as sole carer of this pre-pubescent girl. He is often distressed by the thought that he’ll only have a fixed amount of time to enjoy her before she matures and is ruined, and he doesn’t want to risk missing a moment of it. He even considers a potential solution of not merely discarding her once fully developed, but impregnating her in the hopes that he would find their offspring similarly alluring, a truly depraved plan.

One aspect of this novel that many find unsettling is that the way in which the characters are drawn leads you to almost feel for Humbert. He sees Lolita as a temptress and it is all too easy to forget, in part one at least, that she is an innocent twelve year old who he is taking advantage of for his own disturbed pleasure. As the novel progresses, however, you get a real sense of the claustrophobic nature of their life as they travel seemingly endlessly around America. She has nowhere else to go, and with her mother dead and ties with her friends cut, truly she is trapped and at the mercy of her middle aged captor. As her unhappiness begins to reveal itself more obviously Humbert becomes more manipulative and abusive. There are a lot of scenes that are uncomfortable to read. He does seem to feel some compassion and regret at the misery he causes her, but then his lust takes over and she becomes little more than a vehicle for his pleasure again. As time passes he comes to realize that he may have broken something deep within her. It’s telling of what he’s done to her that her eventual rescuer, and the man she loved, was arguably even more depraved than Humbert. He certainly sees himself as morally superior to Quilty in the way he treats his nymphets. Are the levels of moral corruption relative?

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but it seemed an entirely different experience to what I’d imagined. A complex novel of psychologies and morals that is at turns humorous, intelligent, and disturbing in a mix rarely found in fiction. This is a book that will make you think and question your own morals. Deservedly one of the most well-known novels of the twentieth century, don’t rely on hearsay – give the book itself the attention it deserves.

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Monday 26 May 2014

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion

I missed out on this exhibition when it was in London, and so was very lucky to be in Edinburgh while the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is hosting it. It’s a lovely exhibition space, and the walls are adorned with gorgous paintings of the highest standard, with beautiful pieces of clothing interspersed throughout. Starting with Henry VIII and some very serious portraits of Elizabeth I and Mary I through to William Wissing’s portrait of Queen Mary (of William and Mary) as princess in fashionable undress we see the way fashion changed and developed, and yet remained central for projecting an image of where you stood in society (the absolute highest echelons mostly in this exhibition).

There were two gorgeous waistcoats on show, both intricately embroidered. There was a handy interactive guide that we were given at the start which had an interesting little video about the embroidery, with a reminder that it would have been even more incredibly difficult to have created such beautiful designs with no artificial light or magnifying glass. I am always in awe of the skill when I see such objects, but even more so with the additional information given in the guide. Embroidery was often inspired by plants, and there was an example of a botanical encyclopedia that would have been used for inspiration – the design on the female waistcoat showed the life cycle of a flower. There wasn’t all that much clothing on display because material often decays, and as items of clothing would have been astronomically expensive were often passed down, or parts of the material re-used, but what was on display was absolutely beautiful – such skill went in to creating them.

The section on children I found particularly interesting – I’d never really thought about what Tudor children wore. Within their first year they would be wearing floor length clothes – it was difficult to tell the gender of many of the children, bundled up in so much material. The girls would be wearing similar clothes to their mothers by the time they were two, with the one concession of having slightly less tightly fitting structuring around the torso. Clothes were used to show the age of the child – their clothes being an obvious indicator of how mature they were.

It’s also pointed out, however, that it can’t simply be assumed that the portraits are accurate depictions. Peter Lely is highlighted as an artists who liked to make adjustments to clothing in his portraits, making them looser, with less jewels, and removing lace collars to make them look more classical. The example portrait that is used is that of Frances Stuart with emphasis on the fact you wouldn’t be able to dress informally in front of your superiors (even if just in the imagination of an artist!) and so it was still a status symbol. Only those at the top of the social scale could have portraits of them looking comparatively under-dressed.

The exhibition points toward the fact that it’s not just the paintings that have come down to us that are the works of art, but the people in them were a form of art, with layers of clothing and jewels, they were a canvas to be worked upon. Even in battle attire fashion was central to design – armour followed textile fashion, even if this seems somewhat impractical. Fashion was used as a status symbol. It was to used to create a particular image – white clothing could symbolise mourning, as well as purity of mind and body. This is a wonderful exhibition that no fan of the Tudors, Stuarts, or fashion history should miss. It’s on at the Queen’s Gallery until 20th July, for more details see their website here.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Shakespeare and his World – a FutureLearn course run by the University of Warwick

My fascination with Shakespeare was piqued a few years ago having read Bill Bryson’s excellent biography, Shakespeare. Although my bookcase certainly became home to a number of books about the Bard following this, my general knowledge of his life and works remained sadly lacking. When I came across FutureLearn, an excellent online resource offering courses run by a variety of Universities covering a wide variety of topics, and spied a Shakespeare one among their offerings, I couldn’t resist.

The knowledgeable, enthusiastic Jonathan Bates, renowned Shakespeare scholar, and Provost of Worcester College led us through ten weeks of material, covering eight plays, and focusing on a particular theme each week. Not only were we in the very capable hands of Professor Bates, but he also had working alongside him Jennifer Waghorn who studiously read through our discussions and picked out the most common and interesting questions to ask Jonathan in their weekly round up videos.

The video content each week was heavily based around the archival collections held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which was a brilliant opportunity to see some of their treasures. There were curious items that many of us had never come across before – a money pot used at theatres to collect the pennies of those wishing to watch the plays (a rare item despite their profusion at the time because they had to be smashed to get the money out), a hornbook which would have been used in schools to teach basic vocabulary, the Lord’s Prayer, and often the alphabet, and a whole host of other fascinating objects that I’m sure most of us would never otherwise have had opportunity to see. I was particularly pleased by the constant references to, and use of the archive as a reminder to how important archives are to the understanding of history.

We learnt about the ways theatre ran in the time of Shakespeare, the speed at which playwrights were expected to compose their plays, and the actors learn them, and the ways in which the expected audience influenced the themes of the plays. I was interested in the different sources Shakespeare would have used for inspiration and historical detail, and how Shakespeare often used very similar wording but made it far more poetic. It was also intriguing to see what facts and portrayals he chose to change.

Not only did we learn about the plays themselves and the theatres they were performed in, but we also explored wider issues that were present in the plays, real life events that often had a deep impact on the plays. I think my favourite week was probably that covering Macbeth as we delved in to the dark world of magic, madness, and medicine.

The final week was also interesting as we looked not at a specific play but at how Shakespeare has become as important as he is. Learning how much Shakespeare has inspired artists throughout the centuries that have passed since he himself was writing truly brought home how timeless his work is, and how everybody can get something different out of it. This didn’t always mean creating new work inspired by him, however, as his plays have been adapted and changed to fit contemporary expectations and ideals, especially during the eighteenth century. We were also encouraged to think about adaptations and works of art inspired by Shakespeare that particularly resonate with us, and think about how they capture the essence of the original.

This course provided an enriching ten weeks, and the enthusiasm of Jonathan and Jennifer was always encouraging and made the course hugely enjoyable. I feel I now have a greater respect for the works of Shakespeare, and a deeper appreciation of how, 450 years later, they are still integral to so much creative output.

If you missed out on the course this time round, I believe they’re running it again later in the year. Keep an eye on the FutureLearn website if you want to join in, and while you’re there you might just find something else that takes your fancy (I’m on course three so far, I think I’m addicted!).

Saturday 10 May 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front is the moving story of one young German soldier during the Great War. Pressured in to signing up by their schoolmasters and parents, full of patriotism and the illusion of the ‘glorious war’, the group of young men are sent off to the trenches. What follows is a truly harrowing account of trench warfare and the disillusionment that ensues.

The irony of those who had encouraged them to sign up while themselves staying at home, continuing to preach the benefits of fighting while Paul Bäumer, our narrator, and his young comrades experience the horrors of war and death is not lost on Paul. This is further emphasized later in the novel when he is on leave and returns home. Everybody he meets seems to spout nonsense about the side of the war they have utterly no concept of, wanting heroic tales or complaining how difficult life is for them. The trip shows how propaganda has given people a very skewed idea of the realities of trench warfare. He finds himself comforting others, lying so as not to upset them.

The visit is jarring for Paul as he feels entirely disconnected from the life he had, unable to relate to the people he’s known his whole life. The sense of being alone, of the only people who truly understand being at the Front, and wanting to go back to them, is strong. A recurring theme throughout is the sense of the lost generation. They were sent off to war before they had become adults, before they had created a life for themselves – what are they to do once the war is over? Will they ever be able to have the kind of life they’d had imagined for them, or will the war have ruined them, forever making them outsiders in a world that can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced?

The idea that they are not treated as humans, as well as having to lose some of their humanity in order to survive trench warfare recurs throughout. It’s a strong reminder that the figures of those who went to war, many not returning, are not just statistics but real lives lost, ruined by horrors that we can barely begin to imagine. There is camaraderie and humour amongst the soldiers but also heart-wrenching scenes where you see how deeply they are being affected. There’s one memorable scene where Paul is stuck in a shell hole with a slowly dying solder from the other side. He experiences horror, desperation, guilt, thoughts of making amends for the killing by looking after the soldier’s family, but then the realisation that this is the way of war, and it could well be him tomorrow. He resolves instead to fight against the forces that made the war, that ruined both their lives, if he makes out it alive. This is a powerful scene as we see the different processes his mind goes through, the ways in which he manages to cope in this nightmare situation.

There’s so much that could be said for this brilliant book, but I’ll just say this; if you read just one book about the Great War, let it be this.

Sunday 4 May 2014

The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer

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The Shock of the Fall is the story of Matthew Homes’ descent in to madness after the death of his brother Simon in childhood. This is Matthew’s story, written by him, a kind of therapy. The narrative is sometimes frantic, often jumps around, and at times he talks directly to the reader, giving more of an insight in to the workings of his mind as he tries to write himself in to his own story. It feels very real, very personal, as if you’re reading somebody’s diary. He sometimes comments that he hadn’t thought something until he’d just written it, showing the importance of his writing as he works through his thoughts.

He tells you what he thinks of the mental health workers who visit him before he is sectioned, and continues to analyse those looking after him once he is in the hospital. He comments on the endless hours with nothing to do, how life becomes repetitive, and that when you are deemed mentally unstable everything you do is perceived in a different way – the idea of ‘writing behaviour’ rather than just somebody writing. He seems to take pleasure in observing those who are observing him, though we don’t get to hear their thoughts. Filer being a registered mental health nurse, we are given an insight in to the workings of the system.

The dark cloud hanging over the entire novel is the guilt Matthew feels about the death of his brother, and the grief he was never fully able to work through. We see how intricately linked his relationship with his brother and his mental state are as he often mentions wanting to be able to play with him forever. If he takes his pills and gets better he won’t be able to see Simon, he’ll have to lose him all over again, to come to terms with what happened, and let go.

Although this book is utterly heartbreaking in parts, and there are some very serious topics covered, it’s also got a strong element of humour running through it. He gives short, sharp, witty character assessments of other people in his life, and never does it feel entirely despairing.

The way his family are presented changes over the course of the novel. He introduces you to the different characters, tells you snippets of information about their life. You see who he has the most respect for. At the start of the novel his family revolves around Simon. It seems after his death his mother falls apart and struggles mentally. We aren’t told until near the end of the book exactly what it is about Simon's death that causes Matthew so much guilt, and so we can’t entirely understand the nuances of the relationship with his parents. It’s an interesting development from him being a child yet feeling like he is taking care of his mother, to him struggling with schizophrenia later in life, his family coping with it the best they can. You wonder later if all that he told you about his childhood was true – he may not be the most reliable narrator, but he’s certainly an engaging one.

This is an absolutely brilliant read. Deeply unsettling, incredibly realistic, and powerfully moving, it had me up in the middle of the night unable to put it down. It’s one of those rare books where the characters feel entirely real and stay with you when you’re not reading. The protagonist is very well constructed, likable, creative and interesting, it’s worth getting to know him – read this book.

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